The penultimate episode of season 2 of Big Little Lies centred around Celeste Wright's (Nicole Kidman) emotional day in court. Her vengeful, resourceful mother-in-law Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) is on a warpath, and intent on proving that a) Celeste should lose full custody of her children, twins Max and Josh (Nicholas and Cameron Crovetti), and b) that she had something to do with Perry's death (Alexander Skarsgård). With the members of the Monterey Five — Celeste, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Renata (Laura Dern), Jane (Shailene Woodley), and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) — quickly approaching their breaking points, it's only a matter of time before one of them cracks and tells the truth about what happened that night: Perry was pushed to his death in an act of self-defence.
For most of the episode, Celeste's only hope is her attorney, Katie Richmond, played by Poorna Jagannathan, who many will recognise from HBO's The Night Of, and who will also star in Mindy Kaling's upcoming Netflix comedy. Katie first appears in episode 5, after Renata recommends her services to Celeste. She isn't Monterey's best lawyer (as Celeste, who has her own law degree, often reminds her with an icy stare), but she's the best she could get since Mary Louise strategically dibs-ed the ten most qualified legal experts by calling them before she even presented the lawsuit to Celeste.
In "The Bad Mother," Kate reassures Celeste that she is there as a support system, and that she's on her side, but that isn't good enough for the determined mother. After the brutal evidence brought against her (photos of men from one night stands, digital renderings of her husband's tragic fall), Celeste decides she wants to call in a new character witness against Mary Louise, and question them herself. Kate, like the rest of the courtroom, is shocked at this turn of events. Her role, albeit on the sidelines for the most part, was really part of the driving action leading up to the season's — and show's — finale. "I think episode 6 is brutal because it feels like the honest truth," Jagannathan told Refinery29 via email. "And that truth is ugly."
Before she joined the star-studded cast (she was given a fake script to audition with, but was able to piece together her character was a lawyer), Jagannathan did research on her own inside the complicated world of family court systems. "I went down to the LA family court and spent about a month there before we started shooting," she said. "And one thing was clear from day one — what happens at family court is not what you see on a TV law show."
Ahead of Big Little Lies final bow, Refinery29 asked Monterey's most soft-spoken powerhouse lawyer to help us process that heartbreaking hearing, and mentally prepare for the Celeste-Mary Louise showdown.
Refinery29: You joined one of the most elite casts in TV. What does it feel like to be part of the Big Little Lies family?
Jagannathan: "Not even the summersault emoji will help to describe what it feels to be part of this cast — even if it’s a tiny one. I’ve worked on many female-led sets recently, but this one was special. Minute one of day 1 felt different: it was an enormously high stakes scene between Nicole and I, and [director] Andrea Arnold gently said “Off you go,” instead of screaming “Action.” Stuff like that makes a difference, because it communicates that the creative process can begin whenever you’re ready and whenever the fairy dust hits you — not when the director tells you're ready. She’d also come in between takes to give super technical and brilliant direction, but her eyes would be brimming with tears. Everyone in front and behind the camera was deeply connected to the material."
The evidentiary hearing was pretty brutal. What was it like reading that script and seeing the direction it was going to go?
"It honestly felt like a documentary partly because Nicole and Meryl had fully crossed over and become their characters. Every take from them — day after day — felt so full and eerily real... not a shred of acting on this set. I think episode 6 is brutal because it feels like the honest truth. And that truth is ugly."
There are lot of tense moments between your character and Celeste. Do you think that there is a mutual respect between the two women?
"I think theres a lot going on: there’s some distrust, for sure. Katie expects Celeste to be much more level-headed, given that she herself is a lawyer. But instead, her client is really volatile.
There’s the probability that Katie is in over her head. Most family law cases are settled outside of court. And Katie needs Celeste to take the deal because then she’s looking at a criminal-custody hybrid case in short a cluster fuck. I went down to the LA family court and spent about a month there before we started shooting. And one thing was clear from day one — what happens at family court is not what you see on a TV law show. The lawyers are not bull-doggie - they are “softer,” more nurturing, [and] less pushy. Katie is not equipped to fight a criminal case [like the one unfolding].
But I think there’s respect. Celeste hasn’t fired Katie and Katie hasn’t ditched Celeste. Andrea and I spoke about why Katie might have chosen to practice family law, and what Celeste has been through resonates with Katie at a deep level."
What can you tell me about the finale? Do we see Katie again? Will I cry?
"It’s clash of the titans. And it’s the most glorious thing I’ve ever witnessed. You will be wiping snot off your face."